IT IS DIFFICULT to get a grasp on the full impact of the legislative proposals concerning personal privacy that President Carter sent to Congress last week. The president asked for four new pieces of legislation and several amendments to existing laws. Taken together, these proposals are an attempt to take an enormous stride forward in protecting the privacy of every citizen. But because privacy is illusive-one man's privacy is another man's cover-up-figuring out whether these proposals go far enough, or too far, is an arduous job.
The president has asked Congress to limit the collection and use of personal information provided to researchers, curtail the use of lie detectors and eavesdropping equipment and restrict the ability of the police to seize the rpivate papers of some citizens. In each of these areas, moderns technoloy-the creation of computers in particular-has made it relatively easy to find out things about people's private lives that most would just as soon not have be known. That's bad-and almost everyone recognizes, as a general principle, that it is.
But most of the time, the people who are making the discoveries think their inquiries are legitimate. The banker wants to know how you paid those old debts, the employer wants to know if you are lying on your job application, the insurance company wants to know the results of those medical tests, and so on. Each inquiry, on its face, is legitimate, but each raises the possibility, especially in the computer age, of turning up personal information that goes beyond the realm of what is actually needed.
That's why the details of each legislative proposal the president has sent Congress, or promised to send -t, must be looked at with great care. It is very hard to strike the proper balance between shielding private information from inquiring eyes and making enough of it available to answer fair questions.
The president's thoughtful message, and the wide range of the proposals he has made, should force Congress to think about these problems. It needs to. And it needs to agree on legislation at this session. The information about individuals accumulating in computers all over the country is a constant threat to what some citizens, at least, regard as a basic right to keep their personal affairs from public view.